Any given night in Georgian London, a fête was afoot. And to find it, all you needed to do was make your way to the nearest pleasure garden.
These green spaces, where classical music concerts and ballets were staged just steps away from boxing matches and cock fights, were the great melting pots of the UK’s capital. Just a sixpence would buy you access to fireworks shows, dances, burlesques and beautiful gardens; and, perhaps, an innocent tryst with a man or woman whose life would normally never intersect with your own.
As Johnny Neill, the man behind Marylebone Gin, explains: “What I love about the idea of these gardens is the thought of Georgian refinement, with the likes of Handel hosting concerts there, side-by-side with a bit of notoriety, gambling and card sharping.”
One of the most famous pleasure gardens stood down the side of the Rose of Normandy tavern on Marylebone High Street. Called the Marylebone Pleasure Gardens, they were one of London’s top attractions throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Rumour has it that even Dick Turpin – highwayman, horse thief and all-around folk hero for the ages – paid these gorgeous gardens a visit.
For Johnny, who spent his school holidays traipsing the streets where these acres of lush parkland and bandstands once stood, they’re an evocative reminder of London at its finest. Part high-society, part sleaze, every inch an emblem of the Big Smoke.
“In this Georgian era, gin was very much the drink of choice for Londoners – albeit, the spirit was a bit rougher than what we drink today,” he says. “So making a gin really seemed like the natural thing for me to do.”
But, with generations of distillers and brewers in his family tree, Johnny had big shoes to fill. With Marylebone Gin, he’s done just that.
The Brewer’s Daughter
In the 1830s, a Liverpudlian solicitor named John fell in love. The object of his affection was Isabella Greenall, the daughter of a brewer. They married, and John started working for his father-in-law’s business. It stuck – and continued to do so for his son, his grandson, and all the way down through eight generations of the family tree.
“You could say I grew up on gin,” laughs Johnny. “I’m descended from Thomas Greenall, who founded a brewery in 1762. Our family started distilling not long after, and my father, his uncle and my great grandfather all worked for the company. There’s a fair bit of history there.”
Johnny wanted to go into the family business, but he knew that he had to do things his own way. He established two successful gin brands – Whitley Neill, under which he makes the Rhubarb and Ginger Gin in July's Gin of the Month box, and JJ Whitley. But he couldn’t shake his connection to Marylebone.
As a child, he had spent the school holidays staying with his parents in their Marylebone flat. “We spent a lot of time exploring in Regent’s Park and hopping on and off red buses,” he says. The village-like atmosphere of this central London retreat stuck with him.
As an adult, he moved there himself; he had a mews house just off Montagu Square for nearly a decade, absorbing the atmosphere in the last scrap of central London that still feels like a friendly little village. When it came time to make his own name in the gin world, he looked to his adopted home for inspiration.
“I was inspired by the diversity and uniqueness of Marylebone,” he says. “The area really does feel like a village. The people and business are proud of where they live, and there’s a strong culture of helping each other. We wanted to be a firm part of the local community.”
Casting about for ideas of how to do so, Johnny came back to the idea of the Marylebone Pleasure Gardens. They had long been built over – they didn’t even make it into the 19th century – but they were still an important part of the neighbourhood’s history and identity.
So how could Johnny Neill translate the spectacular atmosphere of a bygone London into a tipple worthy of a modern-day gin lover? He would find the answer in 13 botanicals, and the belly of a beautiful copper pot still.
Welcome to Wellbeck Street
Once Johnny had resolved to make a gin honouring his favourite London neighbourhood, he had to face the first, and most serious, hurdle: finding a botanical blend to do the streets of Marylebone justice.
He says, “The pleasure gardens gave me the inspiration to explore botanicals that are a little more floral in their outlook – chamomile, lemon balm and lime flower, with a hint of grapefruit to deliver a lovely, fresh, citrus-y zing.”
In the end, Johnny settled on Pleasure Garden Distilling Company as a name for his venture, and 13 elegant botanicals to go into his flagship gin. These combine to form the refined liquid in the beautiful blue bottle that you unwrapped in this month’s Gin of the Month box. And what a liquid it is.
“Marylebone is very much a London Dry Gin, and that means it’s distilled using traditional methods in a tiny pot still,” Johnny says. The botanicals are left to steep in wheat grain spirit overnight, and then carefully distilled, with only the best liquid – the ‘heart cut’ – diluted to a whopping 50.2% ABV. It’s a strength that echoes those early gins enjoyed in the pleasure gardens, though Johnny’s creation is much easier on the palate.
He says, “We’ve tried to develop something balanced and delicate, where the botanicals work in harmony, but also a spirit with a certain robustness.”
The finished liquid is then bottled in a stunning creation of vibrant cobalt blue, inspired by fine Bristol glassware from the 18th century.
Johnny works with Isabella, his stunning 50 litre still. Named after Isabella Greenall, the starting point of the Neill adventures in gin, and Johnny’s own daughter, recently she’s found a new home: 108 Bar at the Marylebone Hotel, right in centre of the world’s greatest metropolis. She’ll stay there for the foreseeable future, churning out lovely batches of beautiful gin as patrons sit and drink alongside her.
“We’ll probably run her in the mornings for the most part, when the bar is quiet” Johnny laughs. “But the Marylebone Hotel has given Pleasure Gardens Distilling company a home, in what is probably London’s most centrally located distillery. We’re looking to source as much as we can locally, and – most importantly – to have as much fun as we possibly can!”
But while his family’s long history of distilling and a swish central London location – not to mention a daily audience for his distilling efforts – would put an unbearable amount of pressure on some, Johnny Neill is more than ready for the challenge. In fact, he’s thrilled to be on this amazing adventure.
He says, “I would like to make sure that I adhere to the principles of the past, but also look to the future, and to exploration and innovation. I want to play around with different flavours and techniques, be it distilling in different vessels or using different materials. But most importantly I want to create high-quality, bespoke products that people really enjoy drinking!”
That’s job done where the Marylebone Gin in July's Gin of the Month box is concerned. With ice, premium tonic and a slice of grapefruit, it’s perfection; in a bespoke cocktail, it’s even better. Any way you enjoy it, the spirit you’re sipping is truly spectacular – and would fit right in at the magical pleasure gardens of old.